It didn’t skyrocket to the top of the pops—thanks, in part, to Machiavellian intrigue by a certain artist manager—but David Bowie’s 1970 epic, The Man Who Sold the World, nonetheless became one of the touchstones of the glam era. It also established Tony Visconti, working from a platform established by earlier pioneers such as Paul McCartney and Jack Bruce, as a co-conspirator in the quest to elevate rock bass playing beyond merely articulating root notes. Visconti’s bass on The Man Who Sold the World dances all around the music, adding countermelodies, harmonies, and solos in a thrilling onslaught. Even more exciting, his bass lines are loud, and they’re loud long before urban artists began begging mastering engineers to pump up the low end on their discs. (Remember, 1970 was still in the Vinyl Age.)
Visconti with his “go to” Fender Precision with Telecaster Bass pickup and DiMarzios added in the bridge position. Visconti—a street-smart, classically trained jazz musician from New York—was technically and conceptually well-equipped to innovate, but a couple of other pieces had to lock into place before the sonic barrage of The Man Who Sold the World came to be. Bowie’s band for the album included guitarist Mick Ronson, whose love of Cream and Jack Bruce fueled a desire to crank up the bass in big ways, and drummer Woody Woodmansey, a combination of a more elegant Keith Moon and a ballsier Ginger Baker, who provided Visconti with the rhythmic fusillades to explore wilder and more intricate bass lines. In one of those little gifts of fate, the “power trio” of Visconti, Ronson, and Woodmansey unleashed a high level of musicianship while simultaneously introducing a fiercely rocked-out Bowie to a public who had previously known him only for “Space Oddity.”
Unfortunately, the lineup didn’t survive. “We never had a chance to tour at the time, because we were fired,” says Visconti with a hint of lingering frustration. “Bowie’s then-manager, Tony Defries, told him, ‘Lose the band.’ It was a slap in the face after working so hard on that album—which Bowie loved, by the way.”
Ronson and Woodmansey returned to their homes in Hull, England—later to rejoin Bowie for the buoyant cultural disruptors that were the Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane albums (only to be fired again)—and Visconti returned to his production career. That worked out just fine, as Visconti produced scores of historic and thrilling albums for music icons since then, and he deserves his reputation as one of the greatest producers ever. He also continued to play bass, always keeping his trusty, modded Fender Precision nearby the producer’s chair in studio control rooms.
But what would it be like to hear Visconti evolve his groundbreaking parts on The Man Who Sold the World, as if he had never left Bowie’s band back in the day? Well, that happened—albeit 46 years later. In late 2014, Woodmansey formed Holy Holy, and started playing in England with a casual assemblage of musicians to perform the Bowie music he was a part of. Thanks to Bowie zealot Tom Wilcox, an executive at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, things got more serious in 2015. Visconti was brought into the fold, and a major U.S. tour was launched to play onstage, for the first time ever, The Man Who Sold the World in its entirety. The current Holy Holy lineup—which also plays other Bowie classics from the ’70s—includes vocalist Glenn Gregory, guitarists Paul Cuddeford and James Stevenson, keyboardist Bernice Scott, and Visconti’s daughter, Jessica Lee Morgan, on 12-string guitar and saxophone.
On April 24, Visconti celebrated his 72nd birthday performing with Holy Holy at the Music Box in San Diego. And while many might like to think of the spirits of Bowie and Ronson hovering over the proceedings, the set was far from a nostalgia show. Everyone in the band was intense, animated, and ferocious, as if The Man Who Sold the World was just released last week. Throughout the night, Visconti peered back at Woodmansey, both men attacking their instruments like young guns with something to prove, rather than 60-and 70-somethings who are already legends.
In your musical life before meeting Bowie, who were your influences on bass, and how would you typify your style at that early stage?
When I first started playing bass, I was a double bass player. In high school, I was a member of the All City High School Orchestra, where I played Schubert’s First Symphony, and pieces like that. So I was already influenced that the bass has a strong voice where you played the bottom lead line. It wasn’t like rock & roll at the time, where the bass always played the root note. Shortly afterward, I was drawn to jazz players such as Charlie Mingus and Scotty LaFaro. Mingus because he was very uninhibited—a wild man on bass—and LaFaro because he was one of the first lead bass players in the jazz field. I thought I was going to be a jazz musician, so I bought a Fender Jazz Bass. When I started to drift back to rock, I was attracted to cagey and melodic players like Carol Kaye, James Jamerson, and Paul McCartney. I thought, Why should a rock bassist play dumb notes all the time—stay down there and play G, G, C, C, E, E?
When The Man Who Sold the World first exploded out of my tiny record player, I remember it as one of those albums where my young ears went, “Wow, the bass is really driving the songs.”
When I hear it today, I’m embarrassed. I wish I could remix that album—let’s put it that way. But I’m glad the bass came into prominence at that time, because Jack Bruce did pave the way for lead bass playing. Mick Ronson was the one who wanted me to mix the bass up real high—not in all of the mixes, but definitely on “Width of a Circle.”
What do you think prompted Mick to say something like, “Tony, I really want the bass blasting”?
He loved Cream flat out, and because we were a power trio, I was expected to fill a lot of space. Also, from the start, we decided to let everyone have an equal voice. Everybody had to show themselves off to their best abilities, and that was the theme of the album—no holds barred. So Mick made the suggestion that I should be a bit more adventurous. He asked me to cut loose. He totally approved of me, and he was quite ruthless. He had already fired the drummer, because he wasn’t up to his standard. And quite frankly, David and I wanted someone more adventurous—like Ginger Baker—because we were playing in odd time signatures, which was my forte. That’s when Woody came in.
Did you devise your bass lines mostly through live shows, rehearsals, or in the studio?
We started to live together in a big apartment in Beckenham, Kent, and that’s where we rehearsed for the sessions. We worked out about half the album down in a converted wine cellar that acted as our rehearsal space. It was there that my bass lines were starting to get developed. I didn’t quite write them down, but I organized the parts in my head. The other songs were written in the studio. [See page 36 for more on the album’s construction.]
How did the musical relationship between you and Woody develop?
We jammed in the cellar and felt each other out. Woody is a very intuitive drummer, and I’m a very improvisational bass player, so that was the commonality. It worked great in the studio, because we were making up our parts as we went along. Back then, we locked in immediately, and when a bass player and a drummer do that, they become brothers in rhythm. I can’t tell you how important that is, because when I started playing with Woody again in 2014, within minutes we had the same feel back—gutsy and organic.
Do you remember the gear you brought in for the sessions?
I had a 200-watt Wem tube bass amplifier with two Wem 2x18 cabinets. It had an elegant black-plastic front, with controls for volume, bass, middle, treble, bass boost, and treble boost—and it was loud. By then, I had sold my Fender Jazz Bass, because I felt it didn’t have the low end, it didn’t give me enough highs, and it didn’t rock. So I bought a Fender Precision. But when I switched from playing with my fingers to a pick, I missed the bottom end. I wanted it to rumble. I went to Bill’s Guitars, and I had luthier Roger Gitten put a Telecaster Bass pickup on the P-Bass with a toggle switch. Then, I could switch between the P-Bass pickups and the Tele pickup, which would rumble the way I wanted when I played with a pick. Roger did another modification for me in the mid 1970s, installing two DiMarzio pickups near the bridge, adding active circuitry for treble and bass and a toggle switch, and carving a cavity in the back to accommodate a 9-volt battery.
The Precision is only on a couple of songs on The Man Who Sold the World: “She Shook Me Cold” and “Width of a Circle.” For a lot of the other songs, I used a borrowed Gibson EB-3, because we were getting back to Mick Ronson’s insistence that I sound and play like Jack Bruce. There are two more basses I must mention. “Roger the Roadie” was very resourceful in those days, as he was always able to go into a music store and borrow instruments for us. So I also had an 8-string Hagstrom bass, and an Ampeg Baby Bass that I used for a lot of the bowed and pizzicato parts. Those were the four basses I used on the album.
What was the recording process like?
I followed Mick’s lead and turned everything full up [laughs]. We were playing extremely loud—ungodly loud—and our amps were about 20 feet to the left and right of Woody. I wore headphones more for ear protection than to hear David’s vocals. David was the only one in an isolation booth.
In those days, we went for live takes. If you made a mistake, you’d do another live take until the band played it perfectly. If they were cool mistakes, you’d leave them, because they were a “feel” thing. You didn’t put your finger in exactly the same place at the same time? So what? What’s the big deal?
Obviously, there’s a lot of signal bleed when you do live takes playing that loud, and that made punching in at a later date almost impossible. But the mentality of fixing your parts wasn’t popular back then, anyway. It was looked upon as cheap and amateur-ish to want to punch in and keeping punching in. We also felt it was a waste of time. We weren’t opposed to splicing two takes together to get the best of each. Oh, and no one would play with a click track—that was for chumps [laughs]. But, to be honest, now I can’t live without one.
Fast-forwarding to today, what gear are you bringing onstage for the Holy Holy tour?
I’m using an Ashdown 1200 head and two Ashdown cabinets—a 4x10 and a 1x15. I love that amp. It has a lot of low end, a lot of power, and enough graphic EQ to bring out the high notes. My only bass is a Gibson SG, because the common denominator of The Man Who Sold the World is lead bass playing, and I play that style more comfortably on the SG due to its shorter scale. I picked one right off the shelf at Guitar Center, and I loved it. However, I thought I could improve the tone, so Paul Nieto in New York installed some Aguilar active preamp circuitry, and also he put a DiMarzio in the neck to replace a damaged Gibson pickup. Now, I can make that thing sound like a P-Bass, an EB-3, or even a Rickenbacker. I’m using medium-scale GHS roundwound strings—I think roundwounds are more the sound of rock—but I put a .107 on the bottom, because we tune down to D to accommodate Glenn [Gregory, Holy Holy’s vocalist]. Paul also added a Hipshot on the low string, so at the end of a lot of songs, I just hit the lever, and I’m playing a low concert C that rocks the joint.
Visconti warming up backstage at the Fillmore, San Francisco, April 29, 2016When you’re producing an act, how do you determine whether you’ll play bass on the tracks or not?
At the beginning of a session, the artist and I decide if I’m going to play bass or not, or it might happen spontaneously in the studio. My Precision comes with me wherever I go; that’s my go-to bass. I also have a fretless Carvin 6-string, and a cute little Jerry Jones bass with “lipstick” pickups that’s great for grungy rock tracks.
Some bass players don’t know I’m a bass player until I suggest things to them. But I never take an instrument out of a musician’s hands and play it myself. My strong point is communicating very clearly to musicians, and this is why I feel you can’t call yourself a producer if you’re not a musician. You need to have a musical background to do the job right.
With all the sessions you’ve produced throughout the years, is there a common misfire that plagues bassists when they’re on the job?
I think many bass players tend to underplay. You can look at a bassist and say, “There’s a genius lurking in that person’s head,” but he or she is afraid to bring it out. Maybe they don’t want to lose the job by showing off. I’ll tell you a funny story that’s a classic example of what I’m saying: When we recorded Bowie’s Young Americans, we booked Willie Weeks on bass, and, for a whole day, he was just going, like, G-G-G-G-G-G, C-C-C-C-C-C. Now, I had heard him play this brilliant solo on “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” from Donny Hathaway Live, and I sat there saying, “When the hell is Willie Weeks going to play like Willie Weeks?” Willie is a very soft-spoken man; he hardly looks at you when you speak to him. So I finally asked, “Willie, when are you going to play stuff like on that Donny Hathaway live album?” He goes, “Well, you didn’t ask me.” He taught me a big lesson in that moment, because if I didn’t ask him, he was going to play it safe. I love to give bassists the freedom to overplay a little. I can always bring them back a bit.
Today, I can see much the same reluctance to go for it with so many rock musicians synching to video screens and doing a scripted show for audiences.
Then, that’s not rock anymore. That’s like playing the Queen musical, where you are imitating the music on the albums in order to do a Broadway show with rock music in it. See, that’s what’s missing in today’s rock. This is why rock is slowly dying. It’s stagnant. Rock has its roots in rhythm and blues and country, and those are improvisational styles. People didn’t read music; they made up their parts and went along. If you don’t allow yourself to evolve, then you’re being robotic. If there’s no real and organic spontaneity, then what you are doing is not rock & roll.